The Origins of Easter


belarusian_easter_eggs

Christians celeberate a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered son and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris, in which Isis, “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old,” restores Osiris to life, mates with him, and then begets a falcon-headed sun-god, Horus.  Representations of Isis suckling her son were commonly associated with Mary and Jesus from the 5th century, A.C.E., onwards.

isis suckling horus

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Beitzah

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.  Decorated goose eggs were found in a German grave that dates back to the 4th century.   Lithuanians began to decorate and share eggs with one another at least as early as the 13th century.

ScriptMother_GimbutasSchematic

A drawing of an Old European goddess found in Marja Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess

Common motifs on these eggs are  spirals, suns, teeth, trees, flora and birds.  According to  Lithuanian historian Marja Gimbutas, who pioneered archaeomythologyan interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents,  these symbols represent fertility goddesses worshiped by the people of ancient Europe.

red eggsPersians have exchanged red-colored eggs at the Spring equinox to celebrate No-rooz, or “New Day,”  for at least 3,000 years. The holiday is rooted in Zoroastrian religion, which prevailed in Iran long before Islam.

 

According to Bede, the Northumbrian monk living c. 720 A.C.E., the oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, (Northumbrian Old EnglishĒostreWest Saxon Old English: ĒastreOld High German*Ôstara), a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.  In De Temporum ratione, Bede wrote:

Original Latin:

Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes.
Modern English translation:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”
The Moon-Rabbit is also a symbol of fertility and immortality in ancient China.  This is embroidery on an 18th-Century Chinese Robe.

The Moon-Rabbit is also a symbol of fertility and immortality in ancient China. This is embroidery on an 18th-Century Chinese Robe.

The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.

 

 

 

 

 

When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Empire, defeated the Saxons in 700s, all the months of the year were changed from their Latin names.  April was called “Osteranoth” in Frankish and Ostermonat in German.  Jacob Grimm speculated that the German equivalent “Ostern” derived from the name of an ancient Germanic goddess, Ostara, or Oestre.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.  Astarte,  Asherah and Anath are the three great goddesses of Canaanite religion.

A goddess with a similar name is found on some Roman altar stones from the Lower Rhine in North-West Germany.  These altars were dedicated to local mother goddesses, who frequently appeared as triple deities and were associated with fertility.   Similar altars dedicated to goddesses with Celtic names occur throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, and Britain.  Very close to St. Bede’s  Easterwines monastery at Monkwearmouth there is an ancient Roman fort where many inscriptions are found on an altar dedicated to Astarte, the Syrian and Phoenician fertility goddess.

Fertility celebrations are found throughout ancient European and Mediterranean regions.  The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Ritualistically casting death into the river, the villagers celebrated the return of the growing season and new life, preparing for summer’s bounty with red eggs and sun-shaped and colored food.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the estrus cycle as

the period of sexual receptivity and fertility during the reproductive cycle of most female mammals; the time of being in heat.

Lefthandofeminism likes Wikipedia’s version better:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  every year, we celebrated this time of year by considering the sexes as equals, as companions, as equally powerful and active agents.

What if we were to celebrate Eostre and the oestrus in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

And really–to all of you who celebrate the holiday, Happy Easter!

Of Gods and Humans


I’m watching Of Gods and Men.  It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war.  They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained.  Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt.  The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic.   When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks.  When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection.  The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists.   This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace.  It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our mostly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom.  But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility.  The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture.  They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.

Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist.  Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all.  We are not singular and cut off from one another.  We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving.  We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion.   Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.

Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed.  I’m no longer angry.  I still disapprove of the many heinous crimes that Christians have committed and continue to perpetrate against other people.  I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation.  My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury.  As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture.  He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent.  He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people.  They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.

I am learning to separate terrible acts from their agents, who deserves my compassion. Patriarchalism and masculinism injures all of us.  What difference does it make whether we acknowledge a creator or not, if we all honor the essential divinity of the cosmos and dedicate ourselves to loving kindness?

I have felt a great deal of regret for my often disrespectful attitude towards other people’s faiths.  I was not always kind to my former partner Tim, who probably would have been a priest or monk in an earlier era.  He is well named.  Timotheus means lover of God.  His spirituality was one of the things that drew me to him most, so it is ironic that I should have dismissed his belief in Christ as his savior so rudely and thoughtlessly as I did at times.  I do not share his faith, but I respect it and identify with him as a person of spirit, a person who actively searches for deeper meaning.  He understands that we are not here simply to indulge our selfishness, but that we have souls and that our lives have greater significance.  Our different ways of understanding the divine should not divide us.  We are all looking for the same sense of refuge, belonging, and love.  That Tim and I were unable to find it with one another is sad, but not tragic.  Nothing lasts forever, and what we had was very important and beautiful.  Our love has not disappeared, it has only changed, shifted in focus.  It is not always easy for me to hold onto this truth, and it takes real work, prayer, and discipline to get through the tough moments.  I feel sadness, grief, and pain.  But I also feel lighter and freer as I let go of my attachment to him and discover the deep roots of my love for him, my sincere desire for him to be happy and well.   It’s going to be hard to pay my heating bill this winter.  I keep catching myself searching for quick fixes, as though a new romance or compelling passion will soothe the discomfort I feel facing the future alone.  The answer, the solution to my longing and unease in this world is not going to be found outside myself, not in another person, not in a new relationship, not in a new accomplishment, not in a more sculpted body, not in the publication of books, not in the acquisition of a well-paying and glamorous job, but rather only through a slow and steady practice that brings me in tune with my true self.

My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world.  It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being.  This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.”  As he wrote,

Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,

Like the winter just gone by.

Because among winters is one so endlessly winter.

Only by over-wintering does your heart survive.

Be and know at that time the state of non-being,

The infinite ground of our deepest vibration

So that you may wholly complete it this one time.

Sonnets to Orpheus, 11.13.

Blood and Eggs at Passover and Easter


Many people celebrate the return of the growing season at this time of year without understanding the historical origins of the rituals they observe. This post revamps a column Lefthandofeminism wrote last year at this time to explain how men pushed women out of these holidays.

Christians have a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered god and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris restored by Isis, who was called “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old.”

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.

Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs to celebrate the beginning of their solar year for millenia.

The oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.  The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.

The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called "Ishtar Vase" from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. The pubic triangle and belly-button are heavily emphasized, while the breasts were crudely scratched in as an afterthought.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.

Lefthandofeminism finds this plausible but unlikely, given the traces of goddess worship in many different cultures across the globe, and her well-trumpeted lack of faith in any deity at all.

Lefty argues with Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy that ancient peoples devised mythical explanations for patterns that they perceived in the universe.   Patriarchy began to rear its hideous head approximately in 2,500 B.C.E, but it did not become institutionalized until much later.  Human beings have been “human” or homo sapiens, with roughly the same brain capacity and instincts, for 200,000 years.   For most of human history, different peoples invented and worshipped both masculine and feminine deities.

Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that human belief in feminine deities as creators of all life is much older than the current, dominant myth that a male father-god brought forth everything that exists.

Nevertheless, Lefty also thinks we should bring back the old rituals.   Instead of duly noting the passing of time in reverence to a male deity and his son, who are said not just to represent but also to be the origin and end of all life, we should spend  time meditating on the role that women play in creation and birth?

If the whole Judeo-Christan myth about the beginning of the cosmos makes little sense, even if you remember that it was invented by a relatively primitive and credulous group of people, that’s because it  is the transmutation of much older, Mesopotamian stories.  Some of these earlier myths include many of the same elements–the tree of life, the serpent, the prohibition of eating from a certain plant as are found in Genesis.  Only the religious tradition that these stories developed, and from which they grew, considered divine creativity to be fundamentally feminine.

Akkadian Cylinder Seal showing the tree of life 2330-2150 B.C.E.

Even in 700 B.C.E., when men had largely achieved the total manipulation and exploitation of women’s reproductive capacities–a feat that took millenia–even these arch-patriarchal people still respected women’s gestational and life-giving powers as sacred.

It was the ancient Hebrews who institutionalized patriarchy by divorcing divine creativity from feminine procreativity.  This did not happen overnight. The scriptures that Christians call the “Old Testament” recount hundreds of men having hot flashes about idolatry, particularly the worship of the old Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, of whom Astarte/Ishtar and Asherah were the most important and therefore the most hated.

Easter demonstrates the catholicity of the Church, its ability to adapt ancient customs in divers locations to Christian myth and to suppress the beliefs upon from which those customs developed.   However persuasive the Christians have been , early and late, dearly held practices and stories do not die easily.  That is probably why the name of for the goddess, Oestre, who symbolized fertility is still with us, not only for the holiday, but also as the name for a fundamental fact  of life.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  Wikipedia defines the estrous cycle as follows:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In the great s/f novel The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  we celebrated this time of year differently?

Not for a second does Lefty mean to suggest  that we all start worshipping the Moon.   Indeed it would be nauseating were women to begin identifying themselves with the heavenly body that male theologians and misogynists have for too long associated with the son/sun’s mirror.  We ought rather to spend the holiday reconsidering our myths, and recovering our history by talking about how the rituals and beliefs have oppressed one half of humanity for thousands of years.

Look, there are many ways to experience redemption–a term that recurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures and means, very simply, the recovery of a thing that had been alienated.   Patriarchal theology alienates women from the sacred.  It therefore alienates women from men, men from women.  In my view, the hierarchical paradigm that patriarchal theology enforces also alienates human beings from animals and the earth by insisting that one should rule over the other.  Can we please redeem each other, restore ourselves to sanity. starting now?

Being an atheist does not mean I do not value the rich symbolic and mythological traditions that human beings have developed over time.  We made those traditions, but they also made us. We understand ourselves the way we do because of those traditions, and by virtue of how we come to terms with them.

So here’s an idea: what if we were to celebrate Eostre and the estrous in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  O, so it turns out that feminine sexual desire and creativity are still associated with one another in language! Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

My boyfriend’s father, Joe, an incredibly loving and patient man, very recently died.   Joe was a devout Catholic.  His  son, by boyfriend, became an Episcopalian when the Catholics  refused to grant him communion because he had been divorced.

My friend stands in need of redemption, of recovering his unity with the father from whom he began, now that that beloved father is gone.  In other words, the  son has a psychological need to recoup (redeem) as much as he can, at whatever price.   And this all makes perfect sense.

Still, some prices are too high.  A feminist has a hard time knowing where to draw the line between sympathy for the  son and sympathy for the daughter, who has, after all,  been rather left out of that psychological-spiritual communion for all these years.

We are feminists and we love and have friendly understandings for our sons (and for our partners, male and female, who have lost their fathers).  Our sympathy does not enervate our just irritation.

Go, gadfly!

Naked Truth


Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt

The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”

The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair.  I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind.  She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.

She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:

This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces).  The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.

Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering.  She is wisdom.

A story  tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.”  Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.

In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,

she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…

Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens

and walked through the depths of the abyss.

Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,

and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)

Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman.  Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says

Although she is alone, she can do everything;

herself unchanging, she renews the world,

and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,

she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;

for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)

Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason.  But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight.  She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it.  She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics.  Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,

All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,

Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.